14 October 2015

Drive LA 1 – The Whole Way


It begins inauspiciously, almost exactly at the corner formed by the borders of Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. LA 1 heads southeast from here, from this corner framed by a scattering of squat buildings, the Magnolia Club House here, and over there is Three States Liquor. This road will end 432.2 miles later in a dead end, next to a cluster of oil tanks on the edge of a dock on Grand Isle. In between is a slice of most of the under-sung variety of people, economies, and cultures who call Louisiana home. LA 1 was one of the first major highways in a state which, outside of its famous port city of New Orleans, has only really entered modernity in the last century. It’s a rural state, a poor state, a hardscrabble state, and a humble state. Everyone thinks of New Orleans when they think of Louisiana, but LA 1 doesn’t go through New Orleans.

The scenery isn’t much to look at; this kind of pine scrub forest covers large swaths of land here from Oklahoma across the state toward Alabama. You’ll see the wells soon, the first oil boom in Louisiana was up here, centered in Oil City, drilled in these red dirt fields, between pine trees and in the lake. But there was better oil elsewhere and the derricks don’t even pump anymore. Since then, these stretches of Louisiana rely on the forests for a living. From Shreveport down and over, these forests are home to countless plywood and paper mill towns, complete with little abandoned downtowns and Walmarts along the highway.

Drive LA 1 - The Whole Way

The pine forest changes slightly as LA 1 heads south, more leafy trees clump together in stands, the forest grows impenetrable with undergrowth. This is territory with history older than any oil boom. Here, Natchitoches (est. 1714) was established near a native village and Spanish trading roads. Trade was conducted between the French, the natives, and the Spanish along dusty trails and ferry crossings of wild swollen rivers. This land has known travellers far longer than it has known LA 1.

The road continues southeast, through trees and fields of soy and cotton stretching in hypnotic rows to distant horizon. More small towns pass by, counted in speed traps and interesting gas stations and not much else. The hills stop rolling, coming to a rest around the Red River near Alexandria, a modest rural city, prototypical Louisiana. It must be the color of brick they use or some dust in the air that gives these towns their wild look, like life here isn’t about seeking pleasure, it’s about living the way you feel people ought to. This sense follows the road through Alexandria, through the little farm towns, sprinkled with little waterways bearing increasingly sporting French names. The road crosses the Atchafalaya River, tamed, the course the Mississippi River wants to take but the Army Corps of Engineers keeps it just a few minutes further, where the road turns south to follows the meanders of the mighty river.

Drive LA 1 - The Whole Way

This is plantation country, sugar cane rules these narrow strips of land parceled between arpents to guarantee river access. These fields can be miles long but just a few hundred feet wide. Massive homes sprout up at the ends of gothically disintegrating oaks, concealing in their grandeur the dilapidated slave quarters overgrown behind. It’s like this to different degrees until the industries of Port Allen, across the river from the sprawl of Baton Rouge, but LA 1 avoids the sprawl and goes under the bridge, back along the cane, and it’s cane all the way until you find Bayou Lafourche.

At Bayou Lafourche the people change, again. From oilmen to woodsmen to farmers to River dwellers, the culture shifts now to Cajuns, French Acadian exiles resettled in Louisiana 250 years ago. This is their land and the bayous are their highways. Beginning at the river in Donaldsonville, Bayou Lafourche and LA 1 curve southward through more cane fields. At first the bayou is small but as it winds through towns and fields and then shoots between Thibodaux, it grows. By the time the road clears Thibodaux, the bayou is big enough for shrimp boats. All the bridges down here can move to get out of the way of the booms of the trawlers and the traffic is subject to the movements of the mariners. The people down here spoke French till 50 years ago. They traditionally worked in the marshes and bays, but here, on this end of LA 1, racing down toward the coast, they have their own oil boom.

Drive LA 1 - The Whole Way

Lockport, Larose, Cut Off, Galliano — little Cajun towns with old men that speak to each other in an incomprehensible sharp stuttered patois when tying up their boats. They’re kind as hell too, and the fishing is great. Past Golden Meadow and over the levee, the road hugs the bayou on one side and the marsh on the other. Water everywhere, it seems, and when the road lifts into the air at Leeville, it’s obvious that it’s true. From this bridge the terrain is just strings of grass and clumps of islands as far as the eye can see. The road curves at Fourchon (the big energy port bristling behind the camps) and goes east along the coast. No features but old cars rusting in the marsh and stubborn trees struck black against the horizon. Everywhere is the gold and green of grass moving like static in the constant gulf breeze. The bridges barely clear the water, the gutter pool it where the paving is cracked.

One last bridge and the road heads across the middle Grand Isle, a main street at the base of the camps, high in the air on stilts to clear the rising tides of hurricanes. The roads come off the highway at right angles and end a short distance later, these are vacation homes mostly. This is the end of the world after all, to the right is the Gulf of Mexico, its surf and the blinking lights of offshore oil rigs. To the left is Caminada Bay and then a hundred miles of wild, dying wetland that rises out of the water to drain in rivulets and bayous. They once washed a continent down into this land; these fields and forests prove the value of these nutrients.

Drive LA 1 - The Whole Way

The road curves and ends at the water, pointing north, back toward Louisiana and the rest of America. From there one can imagine the first trails like the first roads, like the first tentative forays up and down the channels of this river delta, granting access into the treasures of North America. Before the interstates, the river was the first highway, the state of Louisiana grew up among its tributaries and distributaries. Then the world changed and oil boomed, trees were cut for paper and fields yielded cotton for clothes. Sugar cane took root in the fertile soil, and the bounty of the ocean came right up to the doorstep. The state built a road, LA 1, to link its towns and industries. There were booms, and there were busts, times good and bad, but all along LA 1 the people of Louisiana keep going. They keep hunting and farming; fishing and drilling. All this boring, unsexy, bare bones living has never made them rich, but when you drive down LA 1, with the wind off earth and water blowing in the open windows, you see it makes them unique, and you know it makes them happy.